Sharon Chen says photos from her Dallas wedding were a big priority. But with a wedding party that includes Asian, South Asian, Mexican and Black American women, she said she found the photographer options disappointing.
Chen said she looked at 10 to 15 photographers and their the aesthetic has been heavily filtered and washed out.
“I was looking for a photographer who emphasized natural colors,” said Chen, 28 and Chinese-American.
“It’s important that they are showcased in their own way,” Chen says. “That’s what I love is that we all look so different, so I want that to show naturally through the photos.” (The reporter for this article was a bridesmaid at Chen’s wedding.)
Scrolling through social media accounts, many photographers would desaturate their photos so much, an effect called “light and airy”, that it would distort skin tones, she said.
“Really, I relied on Instagram,” she says. “Scrolling through two or three times I can tell that they have not worked with or are not trying to represent other couples who are not white.”
With the return of wedding season, it can be difficult to find a photographer who can accurately capture different skin tones. Experts, brides and weddings say they feel this has spread with the rise of influencers.
And although the popularity of Instagram has made heavily filtered monochromatic shots the norm in recent years, the problem has been pervasive since the invention of the camera.
“It’s just this white influence filter”
Cassie Lopez, 32, who uses the pronoun “they”, has been a photographer since she was 16 and has been photographing weddings, especially since she was 24.
Lopez said they “definitely noticed” the desaturated photos that tend to wash out wedding parties and say it may not have been intentional but was the result of photographers using presets.
“The way the preset works is that it would control everything on the image,” they say. “It may have a preset that boosts all shadows, so anything above a certain tone is boosted. If the preset is one that has accentuated all the shadow to be boosted a lot, these are designed to cater to lighter skin tones. The tonal curve reflects lighter skin tones.
Not all presets wash people. Another popular design among brides looks more “sepia” or “golden,” says Lopez.
“People want this ambiguous look of being mixed but still white,” they say. “That kind of Kardashian look.”
Sarah Park, 28, says that when she was looking to hire a photographer for her Dallas wedding, she said all the photographers seemed to edit their photos heavily, with many using the “light and airy” preset.
“It’s just this white influencer filter,” she says. “It’s the kind of style you see when you have to choose from a handful of photographers in Dallas to capture your moments. You see a pattern or trend, which is color washout.
During her engagement session, she says, her complexion cleared up a bit. However, for her ceremony in Hawaii, the photographer used less intense retouching.
“Our Hawaii wedding photos, the photographer used a ton of colors,” she says. “They left our natural [skin] the color stands out. These are our favorites.
“The first stock films were really designed for fair skin”
The “light and airy” filter that many wedding photographers sell is meant to mimic an old film camera, a technology that wasn’t invented for people of color at all.
Lorna Roth, a communications researcher and professor at Concordia University, has spent years interviewing Kodak executives and studying how cinema was invented. The technology in the first archival film, she says, was really designed for fair skin: “I got it from the horse’s mouth.”
This is especially true for cameras that the average shopper might buy at Walgreens or a big box retailer.
“At the time, Kodak started producing consumer cameras that were relatively inexpensive and the film that worked in them and the customers they envisioned would have tended to be those with lighter skin,” says- she. “The film’s chemistry was made to reflect a certain levity.”
This is where the infamous “Shirley Card” comes in. Shirley was a Kodak employee and the original model used by photo labs to calibrate skin tones, shadows and highlights during the printing process. She was also white.
“What they were doing was deciding their version of what they think is ‘normal,'” Roth explains.
Kodak received two product complaints: one from a chocolate company that wanted to show the difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate, and the other from a wood company that wanted to show the difference in its grain.
“These two sets of complaints, it was their impulse that led them to develop a wider range of browns,” says Roth.
In 1997, the company released a Kodak Gold Max camera, which claimed to have dynamic range.
Other companies have also started prioritizing diversity in lighting. In 1994, Tokyo-based brand Ikegami developed the dual skin contour, which could balance the color of two different skin tones in one frame.
“It was an award-winning groundbreaking camera,” says Roth. “A lot of the cameras available now have that infrastructure and those ideals built into the camera itself.”
‘It’s a bias
For Asian Americans and other people of color, the idea that your skin tone needs correcting can lead to feelings of colorism, which persist outside of the United States as well.
Aasiya Patel, a 34-year-old nurse educator from Los Angeles, said she and her husband decided to marry in Mumbai, India, where their families are from. She said she had similar issues to wives in the United States.
She noticed that her photographer was trying to use natural light to make certain people’s skin tones look fairer.
“I had to explain that even though you try to mix everyone together to make it look cohesive, these are images of the most important day of my life and I want it to be portrayed as reality,” she says.
When she got the photos back, many of her guests were edited to look a little lighter than they look in real life.
“I just felt like we were trying to pretend to be something that we weren’t,” she says. “I felt disrespected. They are my guests. I don’t want to whitewash them. They are beautiful.”
As in the United States, beauty standards in East and South Asian countries also favor lighter skin, says Shilpa Davé, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia who studies representations of race and gender in media and popular culture, especially about South Asians. .
“It leans towards this idea that white is the norm,” she says. “And with South Asians, it was tied to this idea of North and South and the issues of invasion and colonization that permeated and had a long legacy not just in India, but around the world.”
In the United States, being lighter can also make you feel more assimilated, which is something first- and second-generation immigrants feel compelled to do, Davé said.
“Part of it is being new immigrants but not wanting to look too different, but at the same time being exotic,” she says. “It kind of goes back and forth between the exotic and assimilated version, and the color is one of them.”
Ultimately, she says, technology reflects the persistence of colorism. “At the end of the day, it’s a bias,” she says. “A fair-skinned bias.”